Sometimes Rewriting Our Old Work Isn’t Worthwhile

The amount of time required to rework a piece is often too great, and it’s best to let it go.

Sometimes Rewriting Our Old Work Isn’t WorthwhileI once read the debut novel by a YA author. I was quite taken by it. I loved her humor and writing style. I wanted more, but since it was her first published novel I would need to wait.

I later learned something surprising: she had written five other novels, all unpublished. True, few novelists land a publishing deal on their first novel. Or their second or their third. I understand it typically takes four or five before they find their voice and hone their craft. I heard of another author who wrote nine novels before he sold one.

Since I don’t write novels (yet), I wondered why authors give up on their initial attempts. Just fix the flaws in their back material, and it’s good to go. However, this may be naive thinking.

I recently pulled out a short story I wrote several decades ago. It is the oldest one that I still have. I read it. The premise was good. I grabbed readers with the opening, surprised them at the end, and had an interesting arc in the between part. All it needed was a simple edit to incorporate what I now know.

It wasn’t that simple.

First, I had written it in third-person omniscient. This was fine in 1977 but not acceptable for today’s market. Publishing’s gatekeepers now deem head hopping verboten. I picked a point-of-view (POV) character, the mom, which required I rewrite all the scenes that included the dad’s, daughter’s, and boyfriend’s thoughts; this accounted for most of the story. Plus it took too many false starts to home in on the right POV character. Third-person omniscient writing is no longer acceptable. Click To Tweet

Next, my narrator’s voice was a juvenile’s, which makes sense because I was a teenager when I wrote it. I needed to update that as well. Last was the pleasant reality that I’m a much better writer now and had scores of novice errors to fix.

After several rewrites and the investment of too much time, my once unacceptable short story was now acceptable: good but not great. An editor told me as much in his rejection email when I submitted it for publication.

I suspect I spent four times the work trying to fix this old short story as I would have spent writing and polishing a new one. I should have thrown it away and focused on new material.

Now I understand why some first novels aren’t worth the effort to fix.

What is your experience trying to breathe new life in to old work? Do you have a first novel that isn’t worth fixing?

6 thoughts on “Sometimes Rewriting Our Old Work Isn’t Worthwhile

  1. interesting post. I have one I’ve been trying to make work for a while. I put it aside, then pick it up again. I haven’t been able to let it go completely . . . Still can’t decide whether I’m wasting my time or whether it is worth the effort.

  2. I think keeping those old stories is a wonderful window into our own younger selves. I have one I wrote in 5th grade. I wouldn’t toss that for the world, nor would I rework it. I have a notebook full of poetry from high school and college. I do wonder about the one I am writing now, have been writing. I have lost track of how many years. It’s a beautiful true story about fleshed out long dead family members and real locations. If I can only print ten copies for my family, I will be happy. I enjoy reading it and cry at the right scenes, still. Beyond that, I’d love the world to read our true life historical story.

      • When we listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s old songs, i am amazed at their wisdom at such an early age. Granted, they are very famous! But I found bits of wisdom in my old stuff, and even read one at our poetry group. It did not meet with rejection, thankfully. Yes, I might be embarrassed if my daughter read them. But she was a teenager once… 😉

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